Nilam, the project manager for Shaishav’s children’s collective, strolls confidently to the front of the room. As a young woman, age 32, who lives in Bhavnagar’s largest slum, she comes well equipped with the tools to address a room full of child laborers. She scans the room, observing the visible stains on ripped clothing, dirt streaking faces and decorating fingernail beds, hair knotted on top of heads, clears her throat, and begins her story.
Deep in a jungle in Gujarat, there were homes for many species of birds: crows, sparrows, peacocks, and others, all who enjoyed flying around the forest together. Every morning they would fly to the river to have a bath. When they emerged, their feathers were shiny and clean, and they complimented each other on how beautiful they all looked. They flew together to school, where they sang songs together and learned about the world. These birds were friends with the squirrels in the trees, who admired their shiny feathers.
However, there was one community member who had no friends. He was the gunda undar, or dirty mouse, who lived on the floor of the jungle, picking fights with the other animals. This mouse never took a bath. He didn’t attend school. He wandered aimlessly around the forest all day. One day, he said to his mother, “I have no friends.” His mother responded, “you do not attend school regularly, you do not bathe, you pick fights with others and you do not wash your clothing! This is why you have no friends.”
The little mouse, realizing his mistakes, started to bathe regularly. He attended school every day, and tried very hard not to pick fights with the other children. He began to befriend the birds and the squirrels at school, and soon had many friends at school, enjoying learning and his new life.
Nilam often creates these stories for different groups of children. I was skeptical about these stories, asking her about the facilities available for these children (they all live in Kumbarwada, Bhavnagar’s biggest slum), but she insisted that she consistently sees results. Last time she told this story to a group of child laborers, defined as working children age 0-14 by the Government of India, several of them showed up to Shaishav the next day showered and dressed in clean clothing, to show her that they could be clean as well.
Every year, beginning on labor day, Shaishav begins an anti-child labour campaign, where child laborers are pulled from their jobs to attend “vacation camps.” During these camps, children are able to play with their peers, while also learning about the importance of education and attending school. There are special camps held for child laborers, who often need extra attention and case management.
By pulling child laborers out of their jobs for an extended period of time (minimally three days) families adjust to the lack of daily help from their child (often in a situation of manual labor) and Shaishav’s social workers are able to intervene and explain the importance of education to parents. Often, children are working in manual labor or in jobs that will hinder their ability to work by age 30-40, and limit their social mobility. Typically, Shaishav’s social workers are able to convince families to send their children back to school by explaining the harm child labor does on the body and the opportunities school will provide, in combination with some financial planning.
This Labor Day, 53 child laborers gathered in Shaishav’s training center, beginning the day with ‘Play for Peace’ activities and ending it with stories about the importance of education and child labor. Last year, hundreds of non-school going children and child laborers were enrolled into school. Shaishav’s teams hope to beat these numbers during this year’s enrollment drive.
Tomorrow, when I reach my office, I wonder how many showered, clean children with freshly washed clothes will be waiting to show Nilam their transformation?